Owen Jones’s first book, Chavs, was a political bestseller. This follow-up skips over the middle classes and goes to the other end of society, the ruling class. On the cover of The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It the cod-philosopher and comedian Russell Brand endorses the author as ‘this generation’s Orwell’.
Jones’s concept of the Establishment is more than Henry Fairlie’s matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised through social networks; it is a state of mind, ‘the ideas and mentalities’ that govern the way certain people behave. The Establishment is made up of ‘powerful groups that need to protect their position in a democracy’; its existence is, in the abstract, something upon which both left and right are agreed. Jones likens the perception of the Establishment in practical terms to the inkblot in the Rorschach test: it depends on where you are on the political spectrum as to what you see as the Establishment.
He is sufficiently self-aware to anticipate that some critical readers will regard him as a ‘participant observer’. He was an undergraduate at Oxford with those who have emerged as pillars of the establishment; he is a columnist on the Guardian, the house journal of the public sector establishment; he regularly appears on the BBC; and he admits to knowing some powerful people on first-name terms. But he disqualifies himself from being a member of the Establishment because he challenges the powerful — though the Times columnist David Aaronovitch apparently only granted him an interview because they were both members of the same ‘media universe’. ‘Welcome to the elite,’ chuckled Aaronovitch.
In his introduction Jones opines that ‘“The Establishment” is a term that is often loosely used to mean “those with power who I object to”.’ He then goes on to prove this to be his own working definition. Detailed in chapter after chapter are all the left’s bogeymen — the aristocracy, the police, the City, the House of Lords, Old Etonians, Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail — together with their crimes against democracy.
Jones’s partisan history, from the founding of the Labour Representation Committee to the MPs’ expenses scandal and News of the World hacking trial, together with the 2008 financial crisis, is the least illuminating part of the book. The histories of the miners’ strike, Hillsborough disaster and the Wapping strikers are conventionally Marxist, with the police characterised as tools of class oppression.
The analysis is better when it is ideological rather than historical: ‘The Establishment is a shape-shifter, evolving and adapting as needs must’ — for instance when change — such as universal suffrage — can no longer be resisted. But what Jones depicts as a self-perpetuating Establishment is really the prevailing orthodox political and economic consensus. He traces the change in the consensus views of the ruling class from 19th-century laissez faire liberalism to postwar mixed-economy socialism, up to the neo-liberal counter-revolution of the 1980s.
He correctly credits Hayek’s founding in 1947 of the Mont Pelerin Society for providing the intellectual heavy-lifting to shift, over decades, the political elite’s collective mindset. He writes admiringly of the influence of Westminster’s contemporary free market think tanks in setting the climate of ideas for their campaigning allies in the media. There is some truth in this — and being someone whom he identifies as ‘an unapologetic outrider for the wealthiest elements of society’, I am flattered to be seen as so influential.
This, however, is not the Establishment of legend; it is the intellectual consensus that has been won in the battle of ideas over the previous decades. Press barons and industrialists are not natural free marketeers; they are merely men who are susceptible to intellectual fashions. Such people saw merit in fascism and corporatism before their grudging acceptance of the Thatcherite settlement.
Jones lives and writes to reverse that settlement, mesmerised by the concept of the ‘Overton Window’ — the political theory that there is a narrow ‘window’, or range of ideas, that the public will accept. The Establishment, he believes, now successfully constrains the Overton Window. In fact it is the other way round, The ideas that govern the way the Establishment behaves are determined by the Overton Window every day in politics, the civil service, newsrooms, universities, think tanks, workplaces and boardrooms.This is the Overton Window’s operating system for the Establishment.
Jones’s unsurprising conclusion is that we need a democratic revolution. But his book is mistitled. He should have called it The Consensus: And How I Want to Change It.